Labour in power must put survivors of child sexual abuse first

In the seven years since my by-election victory in 2012, much of my parliamentary work has focused on improving the government’s response to child sexual abuse and exploitation because of the experiences of some of my constituents in Rotherham. Since then, public awareness of the issue has grown.

Abuse by celebrities like Jimmy Savile, in institutions like the Catholic Church and in towns like mine across the country, has forced the government to pay attention. Yet still not enough has been done. The Tories have failed to understand the systemic nature of the impact of abuse on survivors and have offered up only sticker plaster solutions to complex problems.

During 2019, I have worked cross-party as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to gather the views of nearly 400 survivors on their experience of accessing support and justice. Our three reports, published this year, highlight a number of crucial areas that must be urgently addressed by an incoming Labour government.

First, survivors of sexual violence and abuse need front-line professionals to ask, “what happened to you?”, rather than “what is wrong with you?”. Seen through this prism, the hurdles survivors face to productive engagement with health, police and welfare services can be overcome. Public services should be oriented around understanding a survivor’s trauma and supporting them to rebuild their lives.

The Tories have presided over a period of unprecedented demand for specialist sexual violence and abuse services but without the increased funding to match. They have singularly failed to ensure services have adequate resources to deliver the vital counselling and therapy survivors need. A Labour government will need to pick up this mantle by funding specialist services to meet demand and providing the minimum level of Rape Crisis centres and sexual assault referral centres per head of the population demanded by the Istanbul Convention.

Second, victims of crime need their rights to be enshrined in statute so that public bodies can be properly held to account. The Tories have been promising a Victim’s Law since 2015 and have failed to present one for consideration. It will be for Labour to deliver this.

Third, criminal justice agencies must transform their response to survivors. Police should be providing far clearer information about expectations for the process and sources of support. CPS should present their decisions on charging in a way commensurate with the impact of the crime, rather than the cold, distant bureaucrat-speak so many survivors experience.

Fourth, legislation to undo the damage of bail reforms in 2017 is required. My FOIs found that the number of child sexual abuse suspects released with bail conditions fell by 56% after this reform, leaving survivors in fear of their alleged abuser. My research found one in five survivors do not report to police as they fear further violence from the perpetrator, so addressing this flaw is integral to a functional justice system. New legislation should create a presumption of bail in all cases of domestic and sexual violence.

Fifth, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) has for years denied survivors the compensation they should be entitled to. Its rules unfairly discriminate against survivors who are groomed into criminal activity and those whose abuse and exploitation took place online. Labour must take a root and branch approach to reforming CICA so that the system does not punish survivors but ensures they are adequately compensated for the harms they have experienced.

For too long the Tories have wilfully ignored the connection between abuse, trauma and survivors’ interactions with public services. Survivors find themselves on waiting lists for therapy, re-traumatised by the criminal justice process then punished by a heartless welfare system for struggling to maintain employment.

Labour’s agenda is a compassionate one that must address the systemic socio-economic inequalities plaguing the country. Survivors of child sexual abuse are found in every strata of our society and whilst their needs are the same, their access to services is not always equal. I look forward to a Labour government that will put this right.

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